Roger Ebert: "Life Itself"


Documentarian Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters”) was championed by Roger Ebert. He collaborated with Ebert and wife Chaz to tell the story of his incredible life. It’s a truthful and unflinching as Ebert’s memoir of the same name.

Ebert, who loved encouraging tyro filmmakers, called “Hoop Dreams ” one of the great movie going experiences of his lifetime.

The film began as a collaboration between film critic Roger Ebert, his wife Chaz and director Steve James (”Hoop Dreams”), made to showcase both Ebert’s life as he completed a series of treatments for cancer, Ebert’s died during production.

The film is suffused with Ebert’s wit and humor. In an amusing scene, Ebert tells James to film himself. He does in a mirror.)

Ebert, who became the most influential film critic of his generation, is a surprising character. “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies” educated a generation of film lovers, many of whom now blog criticism online. They launched the Thumbs Up/ Thumbs Down logo, which spread to other applications in the media.

Pauline Kael was criticized for fraternizing with filmmakers, but Ebert made it the thing to do.

In 2005, Ebert became the first film critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Ebert, an only child, grew up in Champaign, Illinois, determined to be a newsman. As a boy, he published a neighborhood paper (with linotype set byline!) and delivered it himself before school.

Ebert’s interest in journalism began during high school (Urbana High School), where he was a sports writer for The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois, and he contributed to scifi fanzines.

Attending the University of Illinois, Ebert worked as a reporter for the Daily Illini and then served as its editor during his senior year (continuing to work as a reporter for the News-Gazette of Champaign-Urbana.) Fellow students and friends describe editor Ebert as an aggressive, intimidating fellow, already an adult with adult standards.

Ebert wrote fiery pro civil rights editorials and stopped the classic typeset presses to prevent a cheesy advertisement (a pointed gun seemingly pointed at a photo of JFK in the next column) from appearing opposite the news of JFK’s assassination.

In 1970, the precocious Ebert was invited to attend the prestigious Conference On World Affairs In Boulder, Colorado; he continues to attend for the next forty years. He was called the “heart and Soul of the CWA” by Director Jim Palmer. In 1975, Ebert and CWA founder Howard Higman launched “Cinema Interruptus,” a series of film screenings over the course of a week in which audience members yell, “stop!” to pause the movie and ask questions or make comments.

Ebert began working as a reporter and feature writer at the Sun-Times in 1966. When the current movie critic (Eleanor Keane) left the Sun-Times in 1967, Ebert got the job.
In 1975, he became the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer Prize

Ebert reveled in hanging with Chicago’s hard-boiled newsmen; trading quips, he dominated the scene at the news hounds’ watering holes. An acerbic cocksman, Ebert turned up at O’Rourke’s and The Old Town Ale House with attractive ‘Hired ladies’). The hard drinking rowdy would show up with “gold diggers, opportunists or psychos…he had the worst taste in women of any man I’ve ever known”, states Chicago Tribune writer Rick Kogan. In his blog Ebert described himself at that age as “tactless, egotistical, merciless and a showboat.”

Drinking eventually brought Ebert down and he swore off in 1979.

The film details young Ebert’s relationship with Russ Meyer. Ebert wrote the script for Meyer’s only studio picture “Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls.”

In 1975, Ebert began co-hosting the weekly film review television show, “Sneak Previews” for the Chicago public broadcasting station WTTW. Three years later, Gene Siskel became a co-host, when PBS picked up the show for national distribution.

The two critics, working-class identifying Ebert, a life-long populist, and Establishment type Gene Siskel, from the tony Chicago Tribune, were at odds immediately.

James shows classy Siskel hanging around at the Playboy Club and winging across the country in the Bunny Jets with Hefner and his bunnies

In 1982, the due who warred onscreen and off, left PBS to launch the syndicated “At The Movies With Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert”. In 1986, the renamed ” Siskel & Ebert & The Movies” became part of  Buena Vista Television/Walt Disney Company.

Archival video from show rehearsals document the bitter “sibling rivalry” between the two critics, joined at the hip. The two men, each witty in their own right, eventually grow close as their local PBS show grows into national syndication. Decades of touring, and Johnny Carson appearances, transform the odd couple into a begrudging partnership, and secret mutual admiration society.

Ebert never forgave Siskel, who died of a brain tumor in 1999, for hiding his fatal disease from him. In fact, it spurred him into the decision to share his own medical challenges with his public.

At age 50, Ebert married trial attorney Charlie “Chaz” Hammelsmith. The devoted couple met at AA. The powerful African American came with a ready-made family of kids (Josibiah and Sonia) and eventually grandkids. Ebert transformed into a loving father and grandpa, and the yearly extended family travels were a highlight of his and Chaz’s life. (Although not mentioned in the film, Ebert was a longtime friend of, and briefly dated, Oprah Winfrey, who credited him with persuading her to syndicate The Oprah Winfrey Show,

Ebert blogged: “She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading”.

Ebert lived with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands from 2002. His lower jaw was removed, which cost him the ability to speak or eat normally.  The highly vocal pundit, who had dominated the airways and The Conference on World Affairs (CWA) since a precocious teenager, continued to write, living through his blog, opining on Film, culture and politics, and corresponding online with adoring fans. Ebert was busy redesigning in his final days.

Talking heads include Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, Gregory Nava, Ava Du Vernay, and Martin Scorsese (an executive producer of the film), critics A.O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss, Marlene Siskel (who grew to love and appreciate the once selfish guy who grabbed her cab when she was 8 months pregnant) and a lifetime of friends, colleagues and drinking buddies.

Scorsese, who himself battled a cocaine addiction, is overcome describing a tribute Ebert and Siskel organized for him at the Toronto Film Festival at the lowest moments of his life. He credits it for rebooting his life and career.

Chaz, and her love for Ebert, became a supportive background for Ebert’s story, in life and in the filmed portrait. When Ebert returns to Rehab, after a broken hip, his ninth stay is longer than expected. A few days after returning to his home, he’s re-admitted to the hospital with new spinal tumors. Roger simply lost the will to fight (It’s harder for Chaz to accept.) The film shares the last dignified moments of Roger’s life, surrounded by his adoring family.

Actor Stephen Stanton voices Roger in the film.

The doc, which premiered, at the Sundance opens in theaters and on VOD and iTunes on July 4. MARVELOUS.


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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